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THE TURN TOWARD THEORY The very fact that we can have a design conference in 1997 with the word “theory”
in the title—well, the subtitle at least—demonstrates that something is afoot. As the
literary critic Terry Eagleton relates:
Theory on a dramatic scale happens when it is both possible and necessary for
it to do so—when the traditional rationales which have silently underpinned
our daily practices stand in danger of being discredited, and need either to be
revised or discarded. This may come about for reasons internal to those
practices, or because of certain external pressures, or more typically because of
a combination of both. Theory is just a practice forced into a new form of selfreflectiveness
on account of certain grievous problems it has encountered. Like
small lumps on the neck, it is a symptom that all is not well.2
Indeed, all has not been well for graphic design recently. And both internal
and external forces have acted in concert to disrupt the practice of graphic design,
forcing it to a new level of self-consciousness and self-reflexivity. The most obvious
factors have been the technological challenges and opportunities imposed by the
introduction of the personal computer, which transformed the way graphic design
is produced and distributed. With the threat of every personal computer owner
becoming a desktop publisher, graphic design was in danger of demystifying its
professional practice and abdicating its perceived role as a “gatekeeper” to mass
communications. Simultaneously, the personal computer expanded the range of
media and skills needed by graphic designers in the areas of motion, sound, and
interactivity, for example, which threatened the very definition of graphic design
rooted in the world of print. Unfortunately, both conditions only serve to emphasize
the dependency of a definition of graphic design predicated on a set of (everexpanding)
technical skills. Faced with the prospect of massive mechanical deskilling
and pervasive digital re-skilling, it is no wonder that graphic designers seek
their social legitimacy less in terms of what skills separate “amateurs” from
“professionals,” but in the “value-added” notion of design as a potent social and
cultural force.
Coinciding with these technological challenges is a more widespread public
consciousness of design itself. If the 1980s initiated the age of designer “things”
(e.g., jeans, water, and furniture), those discrete objects coalesced in the 1990s
around a constellation of various marketable lifestyles. The advent of niche
marketing effectively disrupted the notion of mass markets and, with it, the idea of
mass communication. The idea of “audience” itself has changed as the cultural
geography of society has changed, altering the demographic composition of not only
potential audiences, but also graphic design students and practitioners.
The introduction of theory into the design curriculum is the logical
consequence of such challenges, as teachers, students, and practitioners attempt to
come to terms with these internal and external changes. Rarely does one encounter
any course called “design theory.” Rather, the introduction of theory into the
curriculum has been through the back door—so to speak—of history classes,
seminars on design issues, and, occasionally, in studio-based projects and
assignments. If the 1980s saw the drive toward design history, then the 1990s
witnessed the move toward theory. Of course, the introduction of history into
design curricula elicited less negative reaction than the move toward theory, in part,
I think, because history was seen as a confirmation of the logical evolution of a craft
into a profession. Plus, it certainly didn’t hurt to have wonderful images of old, but
recognizable, things: after all, a poster is a poster is a poster. History gave life to
graphic design by giving it a past and, by implication, a future. Theory, like history,
serves to contextualize the practice of design in any number of ways, not the least
of which is to position it in relationship to other areas of intellectual inquiry. While
a history of a discipline by its very nature defines limits and thereby creates
autonomy, any multidisciplinary theory of graphic design by its nature robs the
discipline of some of its autonomy by questioning its limits.